Daughter of the Earth
by Jim Rink
Lois Beardslee rummages through some boxes and bags in a corner of her
City home. She is surrounded by her art--contemporary Native American
lithographs, oil paintings, baskets, bead-work, quill-work, and audio
tapes--all reflecting ancient Woodland legends and lore.
"Here, look at this," she exclaims, holding up two small stones
that look and feel like chalk. "Red and yellow ochre. One time we
planting cherry trees and I found just enough yellow ochre to do a
The fine, powdery stone, she explains, is mixed with water and sealed
acrylic to form the paint pigment which she uses for her Red Ochre People
motif. This motif is characterized by two-dimensional "stick
similar to ancient rock drawings found throughout North America.
"Red Ochre People are a culture I have created to fill the gap
past and present," says Beardslee. "They are comprised of my
friends, ancestors, oral tradition and the unknown artists who left
pictographs and texts on skin and bark."
Beardslee is good at filling the gaps--she feels a strong responsibility
in her role as a cultural emissary for Native Americans. Whether she's
stories on paper or in person, the imagery she creates is the essence of
life in the Ojibwe and Lacandon tribes into which she was born. Make no
mistake--the myths and the legends she distills are for our benefit. Long
part of an oral tradition, the spirit world of the past has been kept
through a well organized underground. Only recently have these cultural
icons resurfaced, as a soothing balm for troubled and restless times.
Beardslee has had her own share of troubles, and the gaps here are a
bit wider. Born into a family of nine siblings, her mother died when she
was 10; her father at 15. But she has no complaints.
"I grew up around here, came from a rural background," she
"We hunted, fished, farmed. I grew up in a privileged era--I
ducks being piled on the table, each of us having our own duck for
It was a time of plenty--a lifestyle that's disappearing."
Now she's back in the art corner, sifting through more boxes. She brings
out a basket with an intricate quill design. "This is by Yvonne
she says. "She's one of the Sisters of the Great Lakes. There are 22
of us between the ages of 18 and 81. We were hand-picked by tribal
and elders from five states and Canada."
Funded by W.K. Kellogg Foundation, the one-year project is titled:
American Women: Transcending Boundaries for Future Generations." The
project provides for a series of three four-day workshops for the 22
American women artists participating.
"There is a need to develop role models and mentors among Native
artists for future generations to look and learn from," says Jan
project administrator and director of the Nokomis Learning Center in
Beardslee is such a role model. She has been an artist for more than 20
years and has work in public and private collections worldwide. She has
attended Northwestern Michigan College, Oberlin College, and received her
master's degree in the History of Native American Art at the University
of New Mexico. She is a certified teacher.
In 1992, she combined her teaching skills and her love for Native
culture by recording some of the oral traditions on tape. The end result
(so far) is Leelanau Earth Stories, Earth Stories, Too and More Earth
"I'm a real talker," she says with a smirk. "I decided to
use it as an asset. The kids really love the Native American stories. So,
I went to the recording studio--the stories are all memorized, not
down. A lot of the stories are true events that really
Courtesy of her extended family--Auntie Connie and Uncle Leonard, among
others--the stories were handed down over the years. Many of the stories
are used to explain natural phenomenon, such as Northern Lights. Her
is strong and sure--and filled with lively intonation:
The northern lights are the pathways or the campfires to the soul...as
of the people from the different clans pass through, they take something
that is important to them and they throw it into the fire. That makes the
colors...as the people from the Sturgeon Clan pass by, they take their
and fins and throw water on the fire...the flames hiss and crackle.
why the northern lights appear to pulse and move.
Other stories are based on everyday events, such as Betty at Pow Wow:
"I saw you on TV," she (Betty) said. "You are a celebrity.
You are a famous person. Her sons began to drum; she danced off on their
voices. As she turned and her hair spun around, the fringe on her
dress swirled out around her with the beads and the quills shimmering in
the sunlight, and I thought, "Oh Betty--you are the celebrity, for
surely you are famous among the spirits. They know you well. Surely you
are blessed because you have your family, your friends and your
Beardslee is proud of her culture, but it has not always been a blessing.
In the not-too-distant past, ethnic stereotypes have loomed large.
"Once, I was going to substitute teach in a local school," she
recalls. "I was mistaken for a Native American parent and escorted
On another occasion, she was told by a school administrator not to stray
too far from her home room without proper notification.
"You're being paid to be in that art room," he said. "If
you want to leave, you're going to have to tell my secretary where you're
going." After school, two miles down the road, Beardslee burst into
Now, she shrugs it off. "That happens sometimes. People jump on
"Harry Belafonte was performing at a well-known theater at the
of his career, but he was not allowed to use the main entrance--he was
to go in through the back door. When I was younger, I received no respect
due to my outside appearance. When I went back as a celebrity, I was
with much more respect.
"Through the arts, I do come in through the back door. People don't
burn crosses on front lawns anymore, but we carry stereotypes in our
This can be changed through the arts. We can use the arts to change
Beardslee's audience might do well to take a lesson from the Woodland
Mani Boozho. He often takes human form in his attempt to teach things to
man. "We learn through his mistakes," she says. "Every
would give him different manifestations; none of the characters are
evil. I kind of wait until he talks to me before I begin painting--I try
to be careful; you have to balance one character with another on the
Another of Beardslee's Native American motifs, in addition to the Red
People, is that of the "shawl dancers." This motif appears in
her work as wavy lines with intricate designs, attached to the face of a
woman. To the untrained eye, it looks like the waves of a large sea.
"Women are traditionally keepers of the water," she explains.
"There's a certain duality to my work. Often, you don't know if
looking at sky or water. It's a visual illusion. I like to create a
confusion in the viewer's mind; force the eye to confront something that
may be uncomfortable."
From the art corner, she fishes for and finds a dry fungus known as
She scrapes out some of the fleshy, soft fungus onto a plate and lights
it with a match. It glows bright red and sends a trail of smoke into the
"This is used in pipe ceremonies or as a fire starter," she
as she produces some sweet grass tobacco, mixed with commercial tobacco
and cedar. "There's only one place in northern Michigan where sweet
grass grows...it's been subdivided."
On the way out the door to resume the day's chores (she and her husband
a cherry farm), Beardslee pauses to pluck an eagle feather from a glass
jar. Aftersome discussion about the proper way to obtain an eagle feather
(you don't shoot them) and the proper way to harvest porcupine quills
until the animal has been dead three days), she offers some parting
"I follow the eagle. He leads me to the best fishing spots. They say
only a warrior can pick up an eagle feather...God knows I've earned that
mail to nmj
copyright 1996 manitou publishing company
all rights reserved
NMJ Land - NMJ Views -
NMJ Community - NMJ Living
NMJ Home Page
webdesign by leelanau communications
northern michigan journal advertisers